In gymnastics, decisions continue to impact athletes during competition break

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For gymnastics, competition may have stopped during the coronavirus pandemic, but the news hasn’t.

An Olympic champion’s coach was banned eight years for verbal and emotional abuse of athletes. A decision on an age minimum for the Tokyo Games in 2021 caused a stir among the U.S.’ top female gymnasts. Another American qualified for the Tokyo Olympics last month, even while no meets were happening.

Meanwhile, the most common concern voiced to USA Gymnastics by athletes and coaches is how and when to return to training in a normal environment.

“It’s hard to say specifically because our gyms are spread out all across the country, so there’s a big variety in the different situations that every gym is in,” USA Gymnastics Chief Programs Officer Stefanie Korepin said in a phone interview earlier this month. “So we’re encouraging them to follow their local health authorities and the local government regulations about when they can open and when they can return to play.”

Korepin noted USA Gymnastics’ coronavirus resource page on its website. And an athlete health and wellness council that is working with its medical team and coaches to develop guidelines to reintegrate athletes into the gym.

Some athletes have still been able to train on gymnastics equipment. At least one female Olympic hopeful was still training on some days at her normal gym as of early-to-mid April. Yul Moldauer, the 2017 U.S. men’s all-around champion, had a pommel horse set up in his garage. Simone Biles returned to her gym on Monday, according to her social media, as Texas reopens.

Korepin said USA Gymnastics had “no solid data” on the amount of apparatus training national team athletes have had.

“Word of mouth, I think very few athletes, there are a handful, but very few are actually in a gym training,” Korepin said before some states began reopening earlier this month, “and I think a slightly larger percentage, but still not that many, have equipment. But the equipment they have in their home is not full gymnastics equipment.”

Unlike in swimming and track and field, no top-level competitions are scheduled, even tentatively, for later this year. Premier events in the U.S. will not be held before 2021. Internationally, World Cup meets originally scheduled for this spring were postponed indefinitely or canceled.

USA Gymnastics may hold a re-ranking-type event in artistic gymnastics in early 2021. The next top-level women’s meet, the U.S. Classic, an annual tune-up event for nationals, will be May 22, 2021.

Without recent competitions, U.S. officials faced other matters.

Most recently, Maggie Haney, who coached Laurie Hernandez to gold and silver medals at the Rio Olympics, was banned eight years by an independent hearing panel for verbal and emotional abuse of athletes. Hernandez later went public, reportedly testifying against Haney and saying she developed eating disorders and depression as a result of the coach’s actions. Haney provided her first statement to NBC for the TODAY Show on Monday.

Haney’s ban was handed down more than three years after the first complaint against her. USA Gymnastics said in a statement that the Safe Sport investigation and resolution process must be faster. It noted an increase in Safe Sport department personnel, from one to eight people over the last few years, and a commitment to add even more resources.

“We vow to do better – to respond more empathically, to resolve complaints more efficiently, and to be more vigilant,” USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung said in a statement. “We will keep improving this process until our athletes and our community can trust it. And we will keep working with our community to improve the culture within our sport, so that abuse like this is no longer tolerated.”

Two significant decisions related to the Tokyo Olympics were made last month.

Jade Carey became the first U.S. gymnast to clinch an Olympic spot when the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) ruled to count qualifying results as final results in an international competition in March that was halted midway through due to the coronavirus (Carey was all but certain to qualify even before that March meet).

In previous Olympics, all of the U.S. gymnasts were determined at or after the Olympic Trials. But Carey qualified a spot for herself via a new route instituted for this Olympic cycle, combining results over a series of meets the last two years.

Carey is eligible to compete in all individual events in Tokyo, but not the team event. However, Carey could decline the individual spot that she earned and try to make the U.S. team of four by competing at nationals and trials next year. If she does that, it’s possible the U.S. will lose that individual spot to another nation and send one fewer gymnast to the Olympics overall.

“That choice is completely up to Jade, and we will fully support her whatever she decides to do,” Korepin said.

With the Olympics moved to 2021, the FIG is allowing athletes who would have been one year too young for a 2020 Olympics to be eligible for the Tokyo Games next year. A group of U.S. gymnasts who turn 16 in 2021 can now bid for the Olympics, three years earlier than they originally planned. Three members of the 2019 U.S. women’s team at last year’s world championships disagreed with the decision.

USA Gymnastics will give those younger gymnasts an opportunity to make the Olympic team. Its bylaws require it to.

“The Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of our athletes, and they peak at a specific time,” Korepin said. “And to have that pool of athletes that they have to compete against for the Olympics changed can be really difficult. But, on the other hand, there are really incredible young athletes who now have an opportunity that they didn’t have before, so we’re excited for them. It’s definitely a mixed bag of emotions.”

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Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

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Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it.

Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. One names Foley, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and its former CEO, Tiger Shaw, as defendants. Another, filed by a former employee of USSS, names Foley, Shaw and the ski federation as defendants.

One of the lawsuits, which also accuse the defendants of sex trafficking, harassment, and covering up repeated acts of sexual assault and misconduct, allege Foley snuck into bed and sexually assaulted Fletcher, then shortly after she won her bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics, approached her “and said he still remembered ‘how she was breathing,’ referring to the first time he assaulted her.”

The lawsuits describe Foley as fostering a depraved travel squad of snowboarders, in which male coaches shared beds with female athletes, crude jokes about sexual conquests were frequently shared and coaches frequently commented to the female athletes about their weight and body types.

“Male coaches, including Foley, would slap female athletes’ butts when they finished their races, even though the coaches would not similarly slap the butts of male athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Physical assault did not stop with slapping butts. Notably, a female athlete once spilled barbeque sauce on her chest while eating and a male coach approached her and licked it off her chest without warning or her consent.”

The USOPC and USSS knew of Foley’s behavior but did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit said. It depicted Foley as an all-powerful coach who could make and break athletes’ careers on the basis of how they got along off the mountain.

Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not immediately return requests for comment from The Associated Press. Jacobs has previously said allegations of sexual misconduct against Foley are false.

In a statement, the USOPC said it had not seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on specific details but that “we take every allegation of abuse very seriously.”

“The USOPC is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Team USA athletes, and we are taking every step to identify, report, and eliminate abuse in our community,” the statement said.

It wasn’t until the Olympics in Beijing last year that allegations about Foley’s behavior and the culture on the snowboarding team started to emerge.

Allegations posted on Instagram by former team member Callan Chythlook-Sifsof — who, along with former team member Erin O’Malley, is a plaintiff along with Fletcher — led to Foley’s removal from the team, which he was still coaching when the games began.

That posting triggered more allegations in reporting by ESPN and spawned an AP report about how the case was handled between USSS and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is ultimately responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports. The center has had Foley on temporary suspension since March 18, 2022.

The AP typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they have granted permission or spoken publicly, as Fletcher, Chythlook-Sifsof and O’Malley have done through a lawyer.

USSS said it was made aware of the allegations against Foley on Feb 6, 2022, and reported them to the SafeSport center.

“We are aware of the lawsuits that were filed,” USSS said in a statement. “U.S. Ski & Snowboard has not yet been served with the complaint nor has had an opportunity to fully review it. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is and will remain an organization that prioritizes the safety, health and well-being of its athletes and staff.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages to be determined in a jury trial.

Oleksandr Abramenko, Ukraine’s top Winter Olympian, tears knee, career in question

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Aerials skier Oleksandr Abramenko, who won both of Ukraine’s medals over the last two Winter Olympics, is out for the season after a knee ligament tear and said he might not return to competition at all, according to Ukrainian media.

Abramenko, 34, won gold at the 2018 Olympics — Ukraine’s second-ever individual Winter Olympic title after figure skater Oksana Baiul in 1994 — and silver last year.

He competed once this season, placing 10th at a World Cup in Finland on Dec. 4, and then flew with the Ukrainian national team to stay in Utah ahead of World Cups in Canada in January and at the 2002 Olympic venue in Park City this weekend. The area also hosted many Ukraine winter sports athletes this past summer.

Abramenko missed the competition in Canada two weeks ago due to injury and then wasn’t on the start list for today’s aerials event in Park City. He is set to miss the world championships later this month in Georgia (the country, not the state).

Abramenko said he needs surgery, followed by a nine-month rehabilitation process, similar to an operation on his other knee six years ago, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster. He said he will see how the recovery goes and determine whether to return to the sport at age 35, according to the report.

Abramenko is already the oldest Olympic men’s aerials medalist and come the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games will be older than all but one male aerialist in Olympic history, according to Olympedia.org.

At last year’s Olympics, Abramenko, Ukraine’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, was hugged after the aerials final by Russian Ilya Burov, who finished one spot behind Abramenko for a bronze medal. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

A week after that, Abramenko posed for a photo sitting on a mattress in a Kyiv parking garage with his wife and 2-year-old son published by The New York Times.

“We spend the night in the underground parking in the car, because the air attack siren is constantly on,” Abramenko texted, according to the newspaper. “It’s scary to sleep in the apartment, I myself saw from the window how the air defense systems worked on enemy missiles, and strong explosions were heard.”

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